Israeli society mounts resistance to assault on democracy (updated)

This post has been updated, 21 July, 2011

When we look back on this period in Israeli history, I don’t want to wonder: “why didn’t Israelis fight for their democracy? Why did they stand by and let themselves be taken over by sham leaders representing repressions that belonged to the dark days of the last century? What was the birth of our state worth if it failed to guarantee us a democracy? I learned the Israeli national anthem as a child, and when I was very young, I used to choke up at the part that says “l’hiyot am hofshi b’artzenu” (to be a free people in our country).

I’m not alone. I wish there were more people flooding the streets in protest, following the passage of the boycott law last week, but I am encouraged by important voices of protest that continue to appear daily ever since last week. Here’s just a sampling:

1. One of Israel’s most talented authors, Etgar Keret, wrote a powerfully worded column in the largest mass-circulating daily Yedioth Ahronot, in the weekend edition. Keret shows how obvious and easy it is to do what 47 MKs and about half of the Israeli public were unable to do – separate feelings about the act of boycotts from the principle of democracy.

I never liked boycotts…when a friend called me about a year ago asking me to sign a petition calling for a boycott against Ariel, it was easy for me to say no…[but] When elected officials enact violent legislation which violates the individual’s basic rights, it is nothing less than a civic duty to break it. Had my country enacted a law prohibiting men from kissing in public, I would look on the street for the first man who does not reek of cigarettes or garlic and give him a passionate kiss. When our country chooses to prosecute and persecute people because they are trying to influence in democratic ways the future of the country where they live, then I must use this forum to call for a boycott of the settlements. ” [Thanks to Adam Keller for part of the translation – note, various other writers and intellectuals have written similar calls.]

2. The Israel Democracy Institute, which used to take moderate, upset-no-one positions in the past and preferred to hold a seminar on a controversial issues rather than make a statement, came out with a desperate call in an ad in Ha’aretz. In four years of working there, from 2006-2010, I don’t remember anything so emotional and unequivocal as this coming from the IDI. The large headline read: “Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky are turning over in their graves”

The founding fathers and the people of all movements and all streams – from Jabotinsky to Berl Katznelson, from Ben Gurion to Begin – entrusted us with a cherished endowment, one that commands us to protect it fearlessly: Israeli democracy. Those who signed the Declaration of Independence gave it its authority through their declaration that the state of Israel rests on the foundations of liberty, justice and peace…will provide equality of social and political rights for all citizens without distinction between religion, race, gender…To this day, we have not completed the promulgation of a Constitution that defines human and civil rights in Israel in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. Worse, short-sighted legislation is eating away at the glorious Israeli democracy…Would the current Knesset members who vote for these laws sign the Declaration of Independence today? Don’t they see that their vote does not square with the values of the Declaration?…An unprecedented stack of bills have piled up on the floor of the Knesset, and from them blow the winds of anti-democracy…they subvert the foundation of Israeli democracy and endanger  its existence.

3. A petition has been published in Haaretz, under the title “Boycott Law – No more!” The first 120 signatories appear in the paper and most of them are academics, lawyers, architects, engineers, social workers, social activists, writers, designers, psychologists and organizational consultants, environmentalists and Israel Prize winning physicists and private investigators. Within the text, it says “36 professors of law determined that “the law is unconstitutional, it is a mortal blow to freedom of political expression and the right to protest in Israel, sufficient to damage human dignity [a human right protected under Israel’s Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom, one of several such laws that stand in for a constitution – drs]

4. On Wednesday, the Knesset rejected the two bills to establish committees that would investigate the funding of left-wing and human rights organizations. While in many ways the vote results seemed like political maneuvering (Likud versus Israel Beitenu) rather than any true understanding of the deep insult to democracy these bills carry with them, still a 57-28 (against versus for) defeat leaves the country with one less democracy attack to worry about – for now.

5. A demonstration is being organized on Saturday night – in proper 2011 fashion, invitations are being disseminated on a Facebook page with the title: “Democracy takes to the streets: The government against the people – the people against the government.” At this moment, 1,359 say they’ll be attending – and it’s only Wednesday.

I want, I believe, I hope and I pray that thousands of people, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands – 7.75 million – will unite in support of our freedoms – all of them, for all of us.

This post has been updated, 21 July, 2011